Naif Hazazi was 17-years-old when Al Ittihad won the 2005 edition of the AFC Champions League, the last time a Saudi club claimed the continental title. Since that day, eight years have gone without a taste of Asian glory for the desert kingdom’s domestic teams.
Back then, young Hazazi was playing for Al Ittihad’s youth teams. His talents in front of goal soon saw him drafted into the club’s first team squad but it wasn’t until January 2007 that he made his debut, running out against Al Nasr in a Prince Faisal Bin Fahd Cup fixture.
Hazazi has never looked back. Among the many titles and awards he has claimed in his still fledgling career are two Saudi League titles and a brace of Saudi King Cup trophies, the most recent last season. Al Ittihad has been kind to the 24-year-old but in June this year he took the decision to transfer to rivals Al Shabab, who are appearing in the 2013 AFC Champions League.
His new side have never won Asia’s premier club competition, with a 2010 semi-final finish their best result to date. The six-time league champions will be relying on Hazazi’s experience to break their jinx and help them make history.
A natural in front of goal
Hazazi’s AFC Champions League debut was a resounding success. In the Jeddah giants’ final group game of the 2008 tournament, he made an impact on the brink of half-time, scoring his side’s second goal in their 3-0 trouncing of identically-named Syrian outfit Al Ittihad.
Since then, the Jeddah-born front man has been a tournament regular, playing 27 games for Al Ittihad in four successive editions. Over half his tally of 14 Champions League goals came last year, when his eight strikes placed him second on the list of highest goal-scorers behind UAE side Al Jazira’s Brazilian forward Ricardo Oliviera.
When Hazazi runs out onto the Hitachi Kashiwa Stadium for Al Shabab’s quarter-final matchup against Japan’s Kashiwa Reysol on Wednesday, he will be appearing in his sixth edition of the tournament.
Speaking to FIFA.com about the burden of living up to expectations, the youthful veteran of Asian football said: “The whole team needs to contribute to get a good result, not just me. We have to work together to get an outcome we can take into the return leg.”
Looking ahead to his debut, Hazazi remained sanguine: “Playing in the AFC Champions League isn’t an issue for me because I’ve done it before. There may, however, be an issue with acclimatization. After all, this is my first official game for my new team. But the club’s management have done everything they can for me and my team-mates have gone out of their way to help me fit in.”
Boosting the attack
Despite progressing to the knock-out stages, Al Shabab have lacked penetration up front at this year’s tournament. Their seven goals to date are less than Hazazi’s own total from 2012 and the Saudi international is certain that his presence can give his team the boost they need.
“I scored eight last year, which was great for me,” the 1.81 metre-tall Hazazi explained. “I’ve always been lucky at the AFC Champions League and been at the top of my game. The net and I have a very special relationship.”
But Al Shabab have their work cut out. Their Japanese opponents have the second strongest defence of the tournament to date, conceding only four goals in the group stages. It is vital that Hazazi and his team-mates manage to get on the scoresheet ahead of the return leg, which is due to be played in Riyadh on 18 September. The man himself knows how important the game will be: “We mustn’t take the Japanese lightly. It will be a tough game for us, playing them on their home turf in front of their fans.”
“We have to get a good result,” he went on. “Whether a draw or a win, we want to go back to Riyadh with the best chance of making it to the semi-finals. It’s especially important because Al Shabab have a lot of players with Asian experience this year and are candidates for the title.”
Hazazi, with his Al Ittihad glory years behind him, is one of these veterans. The question remains whether he can convert his big-stage experience into a dream win for Al Shabab.